Piano

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God and I took a piano apart today. We had help. Even so, it didn’t go especially well. The carcass, keys, pedals, hammers–everything had been overrun by mice, so the smells were unpleasant. The rusted screws and bolts were unpleasant. The mouse nests were worse than unpleasant. But the conversation we had with the backbone of the piano—the tightly strung strings that make the music—that was worth it all. The intricate innards whispered otherworldly commentary every time we made a move. We salvaged the motherboard, serenaded by jangled synchronicities and disturbing harmonics.

Now we are resting. God is a broken, decrepit piano. I am a nymph with a sore back. God is a stone, gleaming among stones in the hot sun. I am a glass of clear water. God is dimming the sun, pulling clouds around in the sky. I’m old, longing for ice cream. God is a worry and a bother. I am a sweaty artist, a two-bit wordsmith. God is color and dirt. We are calm together.

“Ah, it is good to work hard and then rest, isn’t it?” God asks. “I like you this way.”

“What way?” I ask. “And anyway, aren’t you supposed to like me no matter what?”

God laughed. “Yeah. You got me there. But I mean, relaxed. Not anxious or angry. You spend so much time revved up. And I spend so much time reminding you that you’re wasting energy. You aren’t as good looking when you’re worried. Sometimes, you aren’t even nice.”

“But, but…” I sputtered. I knew it was true. In fact, there are days I like not being nice. There are times I’m happy to be a cynical hypocrite–driven, desperate, and nasty.

“It’s okay,” God said. “I get there myself occasionally.”

“I know,” I said, relieved and then stricken. “And at those times, you are REALLY not good looking.”

For a nano-second, I knew the magnitude of God’s misery even though it vastly exceeds human understanding. The writhing pain of God screams through eternity, collapsing galaxies in its wake. It’s the vicious emptiness of black holes, lonely dark matter avalanching through the space-time continuum. We carry only the tiniest portion of this desolation in our deepest bones. We have no choice. I have to remind myself it is an honor.

“It’s hard, but I try to love you,” I said to this pitiful face of God. It seemed a paltry offering, but it was all I had.

“I know,” God said, the face regaining some of the vibrant color that feeds my soul. “And it helps. Let’s go strum those piano strings again.”

It was hot, but we went back to the shed to touch the vibrating center of all things salvaged. All things sacred. In the end, there is only one song.

Feeding birds

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“Hey, God,” I said. “Should I feed the birds?”

“Say what?” God said, puzzled.

“Should I feed the birds? I mean like buy bird seed, put it in a feeder, fill it up, and feed them?”

“That is entirely up to you,” God said, gleaming bright yellow from the feathers of a goldfinch, scarlet from the blackbird wings. I remembered God’s hysterical laughter at the mating dance of the sandhill crane earlier this spring. Why would she not endorse the idea of bird-feeders? She obviously gets a kick out of birds.

“But should I?” I asked again. “I can afford bird feed. I could feed them and give them a place to splash around, too.”

“You sure could,” God said. “I’ve been doing it for eons. They like thistle seed. And they’re not that picky about where they splash around. They’re like little kids; they love puddles.”

“I don’t like thorns,” I said, frowning. “And I don’t like puddles. Mosquito breeding grounds.”

“Yes,” God said. “You aren’t a bird. Birds see things differently. You’re not a child anymore, either.”

“Sheesh,” I said. “I know that. Why do you have to point out the obvious instead of answering me directly?” This was becoming one of those exasperating conversations where the tables were soon to turn. I could feel it in my bones.

Sure enough, God said, “Excellent question. Why do I have to point out the obvious over and over? Why do I have to bend over backwards, forwards, sideways, up, down, and under? Why do I have to repeat myself ad infinitum? Why do you choose angst over joy? Why do you fear your mortality? Why do you hide in your greed? Why don’t you sing or dance or play more often?”

“I knew you’d do this to me. I ask a simple question, and you turn into a bird, and then get all defensive and blame me for not…”

“Not what?” God said, putting a big, oil-stained hand on my shoulder. The fingernails were atrocious. It was workaday God. “Not what?” he repeated.

I was stymied. I felt blamed and guilty but I couldn’t put my finger on why.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’m sad, God. And angry. It’s making me dull-witted.”

God laughed. “Basically, just remember this: It’s all chicken feed and beautiful brown eggs. Get out there and love the most obnoxious people you can find. Grab my hand and listen to their hatefulness with interest and compassion. Smile beatifically.”

It was my turn to say, “Say what?”

And we left it at that. I had lists to make. Weeds to pull. A self to feel sorry for, and a country and world to feel sickened by. And God? Who knows? Probably busy forgiving someone. That’s my best guess.

Babies in Cages

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“Hey God,” I said, barely awake enough to keep my balance while getting breakfast together. It had been a long night, peppered with images of clergy trying to reclaim the name of Jesus and the faces of friends, offended or cheering, and images of crying children. Political pawns—all of us—political pawns in a game best named Greed. I’m a bit player, but I play. We all play.

“This thing about the name of Jesus, or the name of anyone for that matter. I’ve never quite understood it,” I said, spilling a little coffee on myself. I always fill the cup too full.

“Yeah, I know,” God said. “It’s confusing. Is a rose still a rose if you call it fruit-of-thorn-bush?”

I wanted to say yes, but I wasn’t sure. Essence versus label. Image versus substance. Symbol versus reality. At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow? The name? I don’t think so.

“You know I’m not a formula, right?” God asked, trying to be of help. “And you know I’ve tried my darnedest to urge humans along, to reduce the fear, to increase the joy, right? I’ve tried to make it safe to love. Safe to kneel.”

I nodded. Then an awful realization crept into my soul. God wasn’t talking about the usual kind of safety. The good ones suffer and die. The children of God don’t get a pass, no matter how they were conceived or received—named or framed. Having arrived at the evolutionary pinnacle of being able to see ourselves as made in the image of God means nothing in the realm of power, money, influence, safety, or ease of life. It only means we have a couple of choices the rest of creation does not appear to have: We can choose self-sacrifice. We can choose to defy hatred. We can give our lives for our friends. We can love our neighbors. And we can expect to get a whole lot of abuse while we do these things. Some of us will lose a great deal in the process. Some of us will die.

I sat on the couch, ashamed of my comfort. Agitated by urges to drive to the border and get in a cage. Unwillingly complacent. Lost.

“Stop it,” God said, reading my mind as usual. “You aren’t lost. Just a little frozen.”

“Fine, then. Thaw me out,” I said. I may have even crossed my arms in a kind of angsty defiance.

“Blow torch or balmy breeze?” God asked, smirking a little.

There are no words to describe the sound I made. I lost it. I lunged at God, hoping to land a sucker punch. “YOU’RE IMPOSSIBLE,” I yelled as I flailed and howled.

“That’s it, baby,” God said. “That’s the spirit. Take it and run. No gesture is wasted. Do what you can. Go where you must. I’ll be there. And remember–that Jesus thing has a happy ending. Most likely, you will too.”

An Email to God

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Yesterday, I got this email:

Dear Honest God,

I’m not sure how to reach you, so I’m sending this through your friend Rita.

I woke up at 3-something in the morning talking to you. Which is pretty odd since I don’t believe in you, and besides, you are Rita’s, not mine. I was talking with you about being a 72 year old woman – closer to my death than to my birth, although perhaps I am also reborn every day. You, of course, are ageless, so maybe you can’t relate. But if that’s true, what does “older than god” mean?

I have this fear which surfaces occasionally – especially at 3-am-ish, of getting old, losing my memory and my energy / strength. Losing my relevance in the world. Not that I was ever any big deal. My kids with their work and their marriages, kids and jobs and friends – well, I’m not that important any more. Side lined a bit.

My Buddhist brain chants placidly ” We are of a nature to grown old.. We are of a nature to die…” but another louder, more demanding part of my brain (at that hour) is saying “nononono” The image is of being on a big river, some big rocks ahead and then a big waterfall. And I can hear the roar of the falls….

I waited a bit, but then decided I was going to have to step in, so I wrote back:

 Dear Nancy,

So far, God has refused to email me. She’s an awful co-author—whimsical, contradictory, self-important, demanding, and sometimes frightening. She shows up on her own schedule, pesters me at all the wrong times, and provides few answers. But on the positive side, she doesn’t seem to care if anyone believes in her. She’s not needy in that way. And though humans judge “on her behalf”, I haven’t found a judgmental bone in her ephemeral body. Just infinite compassion for the human condition—a condition which includes an evolutionary leap into consciousness that we have trouble handling—thus that 3:00 AM torment of mortality, meaninglessness, and impending death.

I find comfort in the fact that I didn’t choose to be born. Likely, leaving the womb was terrifying, cataclysmic–something to resist. But I was born. From what I can gather, life’s a gift—mine to squander, live selfishly, cruelly, and in fear, or I can live  compassionately, generously, joyously…I can prolong it, or end it, or see what happens next. I can welcome the day or hide from it. And since I try to be as honest as God, I admit I do, or consider doing, all of the above. All of the above.

I used to think I wasn’t afraid to die, but I am. I would welcome eternal youth or at least less arthritis. But though we have choices, they are limited. I try to be at peace with aspects of being alive that I cannot fix or change—even if they totally suck. But one of my torments is this: could I fix more? Am I doing enough? This is where God comes in handy. I remind her I am NOT her, and therefore, it is her job to show me what to do—point me to a calling or two. Or not. I keep my ears tuned to loving frequencies and my eyes as open as I can.

Yes. Big bruising boulders. A roaring waterfalls. Our lives, a river. We drift along, occupying increasingly battered bodies and steadily declining minds. Sometimes, I like to maneuver to the shallow spots and dance. Or float on my back, find the sky, and dream. The raspberry harvest looks to be abundant this year.

Hope this helps.

Love,

Rita

The Gospel of Stone

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On Nova last night, I learned about the role rocks may have played in bringing forth life on our planet. I’ve always loved rocks. Apparently, God is comfortable being a humble, inscrutable mineral, waiting to see what his own inner turmoil might bring forth. God knows how to have fun in ways we mortals can’t even begin to imagine.

But watching Nova wasn’t fun for me. My species is complex and by all appearances, quite destructive. I am ashamed and befuddled.

“Sit with that,” God says. So I sit. And sit. The paint dries, the hands on the clock move, the clouds drift by, the grass grows, the flowers bloom, and the molecular miracle that I am begins to vibrate in harmony with the universe—a stringed instrument being plucked in defiant hope by God, my buddy, my nemesis, my imaginary friend.

The thread that initially stitched me together is intended to dissolve. I know this. I accept this. But before I unravel into my component parts, I want to matter.

“What a noble thing to say,” God says. His tone is a bit mocking, but then he shifts. “And, to some extent, I believe you. So shed the shame. Fend off the fear. Pedal your bike around and do something nice.”

“But I’m too sad,” I say. “Somebody has to save this planet. Somebody has to stop the suffering and the injustice and the greed.”

“Um, darling, if you were supposed to do that, I’m sure you would,” God says. Now he’s being facetious. I don’t like it.

“Yes, I would,” I say, and mentally give God a swift kick in the shin.

“Ow,” God says. Then he starts laughing. His belly jiggles and expands. The lava flows and the stones slowly harden, preparing again for their holy containment. I am filled with envy. God is filled with joy. “C’mon, sweet cheeks,” God says. “Lighten up. You’re one of my beloved little specks of nothingness. Isn’t that enough?”

“Nope,” I say. “Sorry. I know it should be, but it isn’t. Could I be a little more?”

No answer. While I was speaking, God had turned to agate. Sapphire. Onyx. Salt. Granite. I stroke the varied surfaces, take a lick of salt, and watch the limited sun scatter the light of purple quartz and fire blue diamond. I put six smooth stones in my pocket as the river roars beside me. Transitions are inevitable. I am always a little afraid, but sometimes, on a clear day, I can laugh myself to pieces.

Slow Awakenings

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“You awake?” I ask God. We got home very late. Time zone hopping is hard for me. I assume God doesn’t love it either, but I want to talk through my disorientation. Maybe with a cup of strong coffee, I can rouse the sleeping giant.

Our travels took us to cities cluttered with Homo sapiens arrayed in colors and shapes one sees less frequently in Montana. Beautiful, disturbing fractals–repeating patterns of hope, defiance, and despair. God on stage. God embodied. God black. God white. God with a face no one could love. I was reminded that God is, by definition, homeless. Such exposures can be unsettling. My usual world is small. My town, smaller.

Here on the rising river, God groans and pulls the alfalfa field over his shoulders, a shimmering quilt, greening as I watch. A red-winged blackbird lands on the garden fence. Then a robin. The boulders of winter have been rolled away, leaving the tomb empty again. The eyes of God are bleary, the breath of God questionable. The garments of night are crumpled at the edge of the riverbed–riffraff to contain spring runoffs and preserve riparian areas essential to survival.

In the natural order of things named God, I catch my breath and await further instructions. God yawns and rolls over. The hills pillow his sleepy head, and he gives me a nonchalant wave before snuggling back in. Generally, I don’t like being ignored, but this morning, I can tolerate the slow awakenings. I am growing more patient as my years dwindle and my soul thins out. Reality has become more translucent. When I really concentrate, I catch glimpses of the beyond where my thin bones and thick arteries won’t matter anymore.

Closer in, everything seems to matter. There are hills to die on, but I don’t know which ones. This is why I wish God would wake up. The fight to survive winter is over, but the wrong-headed weeds of early spring romp through my dreams—nasty little gargoyles grinning and drinking while I stand in the rain, chilled and uncertain. Exactly which battles should I wage, God? And how will I know if I win?

God snorts in his sleep. Likely, he’s dreaming gargoyles too. In the underworld, they’re everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tribute to Stephen Hawking

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One of my least favorite visitors arrived, insistent on sharing my beer this morning. I offered green smoothie, but no, I’m sharing my beer. Which is fine. I opened the can yesterday, so it’s not very tasty, and there isn’t that much. I don’t know if Stephen Hawking drank beer, but my visitor claims to have known Stephen for a long time. Neither of these entities need to use the language of commoners but my visitor deigns to do so this morning. I can’t tell if the intent is conversation, or just showing off.

“I imagine that for you, 15 billion years is a long time,” my visitor says. “Duh,” I think as my skull elongates, making more space for my ever-diminishing brain. So many truths about life are hard to grasp. I can’t define a quark. In fact, I don’t even understand the nothingness of nothing. The zeroness of zero. Time is the name of something we’ve invented because our observations are linear. We’re the ones who once believed the earth was flat, remember? But maybe our grandmothers grasped something when they assured us “What goes around comes around.”

“Hey,” I said to my visitor. “Do you think it would be possible to compression compassion into something like Hawking’s Initial Singularity—an infinitely dense point that for some reason explodes and begins inflating itself outward, unstoppable?” I was imagining galaxies of compassion expanding into the cosmos. My visitor laughed. Apparently, there’s a problem having to do with black holes and things that shouldn’t escape black holes, but escape anyway, which has caused a rethinking of gravity. Now this, I understand. Aging causes a serious rethinking of gravity. And our political scene confirms that things have escaped black holes that absolutely should not have done so. Thus, gravity has failed us.

“Okay,” I said. “If we can’t count on gravity, then a big bang of compassion might lift the weight of our many transgressions and make us into beings determined to embody joy, or better yet, eudaimonia, right?” I thought my use of that term might impress my visitor. It’s Greek for a state of being somewhat like self-actualization….when we’ve achieved what we were meant to achieve, and done it damn well, and it feels fantastic.

I think the Dalai Lama would like this Big Bang of compassion idea, but my visitor has grown restless. In another realm, perhaps Stephen is waiting to compare notes. Along the timeline, one direction or another, there’s work to do. My head shrinks back, proportional to my shoulders. I’m glad I didn’t share the green smoothie. This day will be a long lope around our tiny sun, and by the end, we’ll all be a day closer and a day further away. Be well, essence of Stephen. We’ll carry on here as best we can.

Cowboy Up

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God showed up in a cowboy mood this morning. It’d been a while, and I was ambivalent. I don’t love his cowboy moods very much. “Hey puny human, whatta you been up to?” he said, winking at me.

I used to freeze at that sort of question. I’d do a quick moral inventory and find myself falling short, no matter what. But now I just shrug and give a quick account of whatever comes to mind. I said, “Watching TED talks by women, trying to ignore the most frightening parts of the news. Exercising. Writing. Avoiding. You know. The usual.”

“Oh yeah, baby. Sounds good. You got any whisky or some pot?” His jeans were tucked into his boots and the hair he’d chosen to have on his head hung long and stringy.

“Make up your mind,” I said. “Cowboy or pothead?”

“No, you make up your mind,” God answered. “Mortal or immortal?”

There may have been a cock that crowed three times. The archangel Gabriel may have alighted on a Bodhi tree. Kali’s wild black hair may have whipped in the wind, sending fire to the frozen ground. I’m not sure what crashed the morning into the eternal, but something did. I sat like the temporary lump of chemicals and electrical stimulations that I am and swore at God.

“I DON’T KNOW!” I said, as loudly as I dared. (We live in a basement right now. The upstairs people already wonder about me. ) “Most of me is clearly mortal. Maybe the whole damn ball of wax.”

“You’re so cute when you’re angry,” God said.

“SHUT UP,” I yelled, forgetting about the neighbors. “None of this is funny. How dare you act like a fat chauvinist pig? You gonna shoot me with your AR 15?”

“My point, exactly,” God said.

“What? What is your point exactly? I don’t get it,” I said. “That nothing matters? That you can be anything or anyone you like? That you’re the ultimate expression of privilege? A big white idiot of a God?”

Coping with mortality makes me a little touchy sometimes. Besides, I was trying to make him mad enough to tell me something true, or mad enough to leave.

“Your doctrines won’t save you,” God said. “Nor your weapons. Nor your pacifisms. Nor your writing. You’re gonna ride outa here on the horse you rode in on.”

I put my fingers in my ears and started singing, “La la la la…”

“It’s a horse named Dependency. You can’t change that.” God often slices through denial like a hot knife through butter. “And you’re already about as saved as you’re gonna get.”

With a sigh, I stopped trying to ignore him and glared.

“Doesn’t feel like it,” I said.

“And that’s on you, sweet cheeks,” he said, with another maddening wink. “Joy is always optional. Eternally optional.” Then, hunched and bow-legged, he ambled away.

“Wait,” I shouted. “I have more questions!” But he was gone.

Unadorable

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God was puttering around outside my window in the translucent glow of sunrise, looking pleased and peaceful. The sun and similar stars and cosmic wonderments are working out more or less as planned, which is a great comfort to the creator. Other ideas seem to be working out less well.

I put on my boots and stomp out to visit, but God waves me away. I understand. Sometimes, we get a little too much of each other.

To tell the truth, most of the time, I don’t actually adore God. By human standards, God’s a freak. Too big, too little, gargantuan, minuscule, too packaged and narrowly defined, but then expansive beyond the expanses—so utterly Alpha-Omega that it blows any honest mind to smithereens. A glimpse of God is far worse for the average brain than serial concussions on the football field.

But God, embodied in our evolution as a species, is my only hope. At times, this feels feeble indeed. But the great forgiver hangs in there with me, within me, around me, through me, and I hang in with her, even though for the life of me, I don’t get why it has to be this crazy. The planet lumbers along, at risk of becoming another rock orbiting the lovely sun, our species cavorts perilously close to extinction for no good reason, and she suffers along with us instead of zapping the motherfuckers responsible for this mess.

Since I’m dressed for the cold anyway, I fall backwards in the snow and flap my arms and legs in an effort to leave a mark on this transitory day. A gesture of defiance. A plea.

Sky above falls open, snow rolls up like carpet, and the filmy veil between time and eternity melts. A strong wind blows the seasons by, and in an act of pure mercy, God kneels to gather my whitened bones.

“Thank you,” I whisper. She nods. Something vastly beyond adoration breaks my heart, and I see all the people that ever were glowing golden in the backlit dawn, not one of us worthy of a goddamn thing. Not one.

“Take a picture,” she says. “This will be hard to remember.” I slug her in the arm as hard as I dare and get to my feet, shaky but ready. It’s time to go back in, fry some eggs, and mumble my usual incoherent prayers.

Eat Fat, Get Nicer

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“God,” I said. “What do you think of that eat-fat-get-skinny diet?” God looked at me like I’d lost the few marbles I have left. It wasn’t the best conversation starter but it was on my mind. Who better than the architect of this whole ragged universe to answer this? I know it’s a first-world question, but that’s where I live.

God sat quietly with her hands folded over her large, shapely belly. I ran my hands over the skin on my chest, which was all bumpy from having a few moles frozen off yesterday. Vanity is painful and expensive, and trying to stay alive forever is even worse. Omega 3, a key ingredient of this magical new way to eat, is a pricey substance for land lubbers. But it might save me from heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and post-nasal drip.

And if I manage all that, I want nice skin, right? As the dermatologist zapped the moles with liquid nitrogen, I mentioned that my lip had mysteriously swollen up yesterday. She pulled it down and said, “Looks like an allergic reaction. You need to see an allergist right away. Another reaction could kill you.”

Often, I find I don’t love the medical profession.

“Not a bad way to die,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood for further testing.

“What? Asphyxiation?” Her eyes narrowed as she wrote a referral I knew I’d throw away.

“Yeah,” I said. She was scornful. I was defiant. “It takes less than a minute to lose consciousness.”

I don’t have to see her for another year. But God’s sitting right here, messing with my thoughts, which are swirling like the snow outside. “It’s so much bigger than that,” she said. “So much bigger.”

Oh, yeah, I thought. That’s so helpful. Like I don’t know the planet will die some billions of years from now, and the sun will burn out, and the cosmos will birth new stars, new planets. There’ll be new steps to the dance. But in the meantime, do I eat sardines to prolong my short stay?

“Yes and no,” God answered. “If you eat them so you can be kinder longer, yes, eat away. But if you eat them out of fear, no. If you eat them with gratitude, yes. If you eat them like a life-hoarder, no.  She paused. I gulped. The air was crackling

She continued. “I cannot stress this enough, honey. The fiber you add to your diet matters little, but the fiber you are made of is screaming for a life well-lived. Transform your greed to charity, your anxiety to bravery. Transform your rage to action. Transform those little lies and excuses to outrageous honesty. Use your intellect to the max. Stroke each day like it’s a purring kitten or a happy dog. You’ll know when you should die.”

I looked at her in despair. I wasn’t sure I knew when I should do anything. She could sense my fear. My deep doubts and flailing good intentions. She rubbed my back and stoked the fire as the hills disappeared in the storm.